One of the most divisive issues in the church today is how to interpret the first chapters of Genesis. What are the lengths of the creation days? What is the age of the earth? These questions are not new. The church has been wrestling over these issues for nearly 2,000 years. Since theologians and scholars from preceding generations were not influenced by modern philosophy or recent scientific discoveries, perhaps they can serve as a useful reference point against which we can judge our modern concerns.
Using Creeds to Resolve the Historic Age Debate
A number of people on all sides of the debate have tried to enlist ancient authorities in support of their own contemporary interpretations.1 Unfortunately, such claims are almost always seriously flawed for reasons I have documented here, here, and here. One specific reason is that most of these earlier theologians based their understanding of Genesis on translations rather than the actual Hebrew. So while they weren’t influenced by modern concerns, their reliance on translations led to frequent misunderstandings of the text.
Fortunately, there is an alternative way to draw upon the wisdom of the ages—by examining prominent church creedal statements (e.g., creeds, canons, confessions of faith, etc.). These doctrinal standards represent the views of large segments of the church (rather than the interpretations of individual theologians), and they lay out what was deemed most vital and agreed upon, in contrast to speculation or the opinion of individuals.
Creeds, Canons, Councils, Confessions, and Catechisms
Creeds represent the earliest proclamations of Christian orthodoxy.2 They helped maintain unity within the church and guarded against heresies by clearly and concisely outlining foundational beliefs. Creeds were also used in the instruction of new converts as well as in laying out doctrinal standards for church leaders. The creeds listed here are of great importance because, generally speaking, all three branches of Christianity—Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism—accept them:
• Apostles' Creed (first or second century AD)
• Nicene Creed (325, revised 381)
• Chalcedonian Creed (451)
• Athanasian Creed (ca. 500)
• Canons of the Council of Orange (529)
During the Protestant Reformation, many reformers developed lengthy confessions of faith to document their religious convictions. These confessions and articles of faith were much longer and more detailed than earlier creeds. The most important examples are given here:
• Ninety-Five Theses (Germany, 1517)
• Augsburg Confession (Germany, 1530)
• Genevan Confession (Switzerland, 1536)
• French Confession (France, 1559)
• Scottish Confession (Scotland, 1560)
• Belgic Confession (Netherlands and Belgium, 1561)
• Heidelberg Catechism (Germany, 1563)
• Second Helvetic Confession (Switzerland, 1566)
• Thirty-Nine Articles (England, 1563, 1571)
• Irish Articles (Ireland, 1615)
• Westminster Confession of Faith (England, 1647)
What, then, do these creeds and confessions of faith have to say about the doctrine of creation? My research has led me to three important points for today’s creationists to consider.
Finding #1: Creation Ex Nihilo
In surveying nearly 2,000 years of church history, only one creation-related issue received clear and consistent inclusion in creedal statements—the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (literally, creation “out of nothing”).3 This is the belief that God brought the universe into existence by His own power. It stands in opposition to the ancient Greek notion that matter is eternal and has always existed. The belief that God created everything is stated in 11 of these creeds and confessions, with two explicitly declaring that God created the cosmos “out of nothing.” For a complete discussion with explicit quotes, see here.
Finding #2: God’s Dual Revelation
Two important Reformation confessions clearly elucidate the notion of a dual revelation. Also known as the “two books” theory,4 this idea posits that God has related information about himself through both the general revelation of creation and the special revelation of Scripture. Thus, the testimonies of nature and Scripture should corroborate one another.
As such this God reveals himself to men; firstly in his works, in their creation, as well as in their preservation and control. Secondly, and more clearly, in his Word, which was in the beginning revealed through oracles, and which was afterward committed to writing in the books which we call the Holy Scriptures. (French Confession, Article 2)
We know Him [God] by two means: First, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book…Second, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word. (Belgic Confession, Article 2)
The theological importance of this dual revelation is that it makes it clear that there is value in studying the natural world and that science is a valuable ally of the Christian faith.5
Finding #3: God Created Everything “in the Space of Six Days”
Aside from these first two findings, there is only one phrase that is significant for our study. In two cases, we find a declaration that God created “in the space of six days” (Irish Articles 18 and Westminster Confession of Faith 4.1). This phrase is at the center of a recent controversy (within the last 20 years), with some Christians claiming it prescribes an exclusive calendar-day (or young-earth) view of the creation time line in Genesis 1.
In response, both the Westminster Theological Seminary (see here) and the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA, see here) decided to study this issue in depth. In both cases, they concluded that the wording “in the space of six days” traces back to Reformer John Calvin and was intended to specify that the days of creation must be real (non-instantaneous) periods of time. Over 1,000 years earlier, Augustine had popularized the view that the days of creation were to be understood allegorically and were not actual periods of time. Although Calvin was strongly influenced by Augustine in other areas, he specifically rejected the notion that the days of creation could be instantaneous. At the same time, Calvin’s use of “six days,” rather than a more specific “six natural days,” leaves the length of the creation days unspecified. In fact, the PCA study specifically recognized the calendar-day, day-age, framework, and analogical day views as being consistent with Christian orthodoxy.
Based on these creedal statements, there are only two creation-related issues that Christians must unite on: creation ex nihilo and a belief in dual revelation. In contrast, the days of creation are only obliquely mentioned twice, while the age of the earth is not even discussed. It is evident that the early church fathers and other prominent leaders did not consider the age of the earth a central or defining issue for believers. This means that we should not divide the church over days of creation or the age of the earth but should work to peacefully resolve these issues through study and dialogue. And the best part is that everyone can investigate church creedal statements for himself or herself.
Dr. John Millam
Dr. Millam received his doctorate in theoretical chemistry from Rice University in 1997 and currently serves as a programmer for Semichem in Kansas City.